OPINION: An extremely Red Hen

Last Friday, a server at the Red Hen posted on Facebook that the owner of the restaurant had refused service to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. After this was confirmed the next day in a tweet by Sanders, the news quickly spread nationally, inviting people all over to examine the merits of refusing service.

The Red Hen is located just a few short blocks away from Washington and Lee’s campus. According to reports from students staying in Lexington for the summer, there has been support for the Red Hen, with flowers and signs being left outside the door thanking the establishment for its position. One sign thanks the restaurant and claims “that Lexington has no tolerance for intolerance.”

Some on the right have criticized this action, calling it hateful and wrong to refuse to serve Sanders. This immediately calls to mind the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. In this U.S. Supreme Court decision, it ruled that Jack Philips was allowed to refuse to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and Dave Mullins, who wanted a cake to celebrate their gay marriage. Philips had moral objections to providing the service and argued that it would be an expression of his free speech to create a cake for the couple. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ended up kicking the metaphorical can down the road by not addressing this specific question. It instead criticized how the Colorado Civil Rights Commission handled itself by arguing that that the Commission violated Philips’ religious freedom through during the hearing.

Of course, as soon as anyone began to argue that the Red Hen was being discriminatory they were immediately labeled as hypocritical because of the conservatives’ position on the cake baking case. How can you refuse service to a gay couple based on moral grounds, but also say that is wrong to refuse service to someone else based on a different “moral conviction?”

The answer to this lies in an examination of the situation. Philips refused to bake a cake because he did not want to use his free expression in support of something that he did not believe in. He was not opposed to serving Craig or Mullins, and in fact was quoted in the Supreme Court decision saying, “I’ll make your birthday cakes, shower cakes, sell you cookies and brownies, I just don’t make cakes for same sex weddings.” The point was that he wasn’t opposed to a person, just an action that he did not feel morally comfortable supporting. But in the case of the Red Hen, they told Sanders to leave just because of who she was, not because of any action she had taken while at the place. If for some reason she had ordered the steak and potatoes but asked for them to be arranged in some offensive symbol, then the Red Hen would have a case for refusing service, at least under the mindset of the recent cakeshop decision. But this is all circumstantial as the Supreme Court has not truly ruled on this important issue yet.

This really is not a legal matter. Sanders has not expressed any intention to sue the Red Hen for not serving her, saying, “I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.” Regardless of your opinion of President Trump or his staff, actions like this should never be celebrated. Free speech is important, but just being rude to someone you disagree for the sake of a political ploy is petty.

As a Washington and Lee student, I am a part of the Lexington community for nine months out of the year. Personally, I have never been to the Red Hen, but the restaurant’s actions and the corresponding media attention don’t reflect the Southern hospitality that I have experienced over and over here. I don’t mind if other people go there and I am not going to go stand outside the restaurant harassing people who do decide to. 

In the end, if you disagree with the Red Hen’s position, take your business to the Southern Inn or Haywoods, both of whom have publicly stated their support for a non-discriminatory policy that would not have allowed an incident like this to happen. Lastly, let’s not forget that our goal should be to work together in a civil way to solve problems. If you don’t like what happened last Friday, let the Red Hen know by going somewhere else for dinner.

This article was originally published in The Washington and Lee Spectator, a conservative student newspaper affiliated with the Leadership Institute's Campus Leadership Program. Its articles are republished here with permission.

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